The Safe Schools Coalition program ought not to be controversial. It was launched with bipartisan political support, and it has the very laudable aim of reducing the shocking rates of self-harm and suicide amongst young LGBTIQ Australians.
The announcement of a governmental review of the program has also opened up a rich seam of hypocrisy in the fringe right elements of the Liberal and National parties: it is hard to maintain that the Safe Schools Coalition is a form of indoctrination when there are 125 religious chaplains in our supposedly secular public school system for every one Safe Schools Coalition worker, and spending on chaplains totals thirty times the amount budgeted for the Safe Schools Coalition. Similarly, Cory Bernardi’s epic ‘sook’ after being labeled a homophobe by the Opposition leader demonstrates the utter lunacy of his position: the man who tacitly condones the bullying of vulnerable youth not only turns out to have a glass jaw – quelle surprise! – but also seems to have intuited that homophobia is bad without having ceased to hate queers.
That we as a nation are even having this ‘debate’, if you can call it that, seems almost farcical: the whirligig of time bringing in his revenges in the form of a bad sequel to the nineties’ culture wars.
Yet in another sense this very public spat about a wholesome education program was inevitable.
White western culture, broadly speaking, harbours very specific anxieties about queer sexuality and its relationship to the construct of childhood innocence. Children are understood as fundamentally innocent, which necessarily entails that they must be asexual. As queerness is understood within our culture to be primarily about sex acts, the concept of a queer child remains an impossibility. Yet, as Kathryn Bond Stockton notes in her essay ‘Eve’s Queer Child’, ‘to forbid a child [the designation of queerness] uncovers a contradiction in the public discourse on childhood sexual orientation: the general cultural and political tendency to officially treat all children as straight, while continuing to deem them asexual.’ This cultural contradiction is resolved through narrative logic – children can be understood as simultaneously asexual and straight if we figure their asexuality as one that will, unless disturbed, develop into reproductive heterosexuality.
This narrative logic, however, necessarily understands the child’s future heterosexuality as at risk –in particular, from adult queers. The predatory queer who ‘recruits’ children into their perverted ‘lifestyle’ is a staple of pop culture, as is its obverse: the adult queer whose unnatural sexuality has been shaped by the spectre of sexual abuse sustained as a child. (These two figures are not mutually exclusive: indeed, the narrative logic of child sexual abuse in our culture conflates victims with future offenders, thus positing that paedophile numbers increase, in James Kincaid’s memorable phrase, ‘geometrically, like werewolves.’) Thus the hyperbolic nature of the language used by opponents of the Safe Schools Coalition such as George Christensen and Kevin Donnelly, who deploy loaded terms like ‘recruitment’ and ‘grooming’ precisely in order to elide the very obvious distinctions between the principled queer adults who wish to make schools safer and child sex abusers.
This elision between queers and paedophiles is an old trick for homophobes looking to whip up a little hysteria – one that goes back to Anita Bryant’s 1977 Save Our Children campaign and her claim that ‘homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children’ – but refreshingly enough, it seems that most Australians are not buying it this time.
Instead, a new narrative of queerness and childhood is emerging. Instead of the (asexual, presumably straight) child at risk from predatory queerness, this new narrative casts the queer child at risk from callous homophobia. We can trace this narrative’s emergence in the flurry of thinkpieces and memoir that have emerged from the announcement of the review into the program: many of them painful and moving accounts of what it is to be the mother of a trans child, to remain closeted throughout high school, to be at the receiving end of vicious physical and emotional abuse for being gay. It is a cultural narrative that better fits the facts of life for young queers than the narrative peddled by Christensen and his friends – 61 per cent of young LGBTIQ people report experiencing verbal homophobic abuse, and 18 per cent have experienced physical abuse, with correlating emotional effects in the form of increased rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide.
The emergence of this new narrative, as fragile as it is, should therefore be welcomed as a sign of immense progress. In 1991, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argued that:
[t]he presiding asymmetry of value assignment between hetero and homo goes unchallenged everywhere: advice on how to help your kids turn out gay . . . is less ubiquitous than you might think. On the other hand, the scope of institutions whose programmatic undertaking is to prevent the development of gay people is unimaginably large.
Initiatives such as the Safe Schools Coalition actively seek to redress this asymmetry, and in doing so, help bring about a world in which ‘the existence of [queer] people is treated as a precious desideratum, a needed condition of life.’
Yet those of us who wish for such a world must also remain alive to the dangers of using the figure of the vulnerable queer child as a means to defend initiatives such as the Safe Schools Coalition.
Perhaps in response to the ludicrous suggestion that such initiatives constitute a form of ‘recruitment’, defenders of these programs insist on an essentialist explanation of queerness, one in which same-sex attracted and/or trans kids are simply ‘born that way’ and remain impervious to any form of social or cultural conditioning. This perspective derives its appeal from its strategic usefulness in countering the conservative ideology that considers queerness a mere ‘lifestyle choice’, and a morally dubious one at that; if queerness is not ‘chosen’, then it becomes an immutable characteristic, and one that should therefore be protected from discrimination.
Yet the assumption that nobody would ‘choose’ to be queer itself reproduces the asymmetry between hetero and homo – it presents queerness as something so abject that nobody would ever willingly want to endure it, and argues only for a weak form of tolerance. That a person of any age might view queer life in all its affective richness as an attractive option, or contrast queer life with the mundaneness of heterosexuality, and positively affirm their commitment to becoming queer is never even considered.
This essentialist argument also masks the means through which cis-normative heterosexuality itself is taught and reproduced. If queers are indeed ‘born this way’ – emerging from the womb with a fully-formed love of Grace Jones, the films of John Waters, and designer drugs – then so too must cis heterosexual people be. Against a backdrop of horrific male violence against women – violence more often than not driven by a toxic stew of insecurity, possessiveness, and machismo – it seems more necessary than ever to affirm that our sexual and gender identities are not fixed, that we need not remain trapped in the prisons of normative gender identity and heterosexuality even (or especially) if we feel no gender dysphoria or desire members of the ‘opposite’ sex.
Perhaps it would be more productive to accept that the activity of groups such as the Safe Schools Coalition is indeed a form of ‘recruitment’: recruitment into the possibility of a world where the old, harmful verities of what it is to be a man and a woman, and what men and women should desire, no longer hold sway.